U.S. border agency says COVID vax not essential; Canadians could be denied entry

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TORONTO — Canadians attempting to drive across the American border solely for a COVID-19 vaccination, even with a doctor's referral, would be denied entry, the U.S. border agency said on Wednesday.

Unlike the Canadian government, Customs and Border Protection said it does not consider a vaccine essential for entry purposes.

"Travel for the sole purpose of obtaining a vaccination is not permissible under current travel restrictions," an agency spokesman said. "If a person is entering the U.S. for legitimate travel reasons, as allowed under current restriction guidelines, and receives a vaccine incidental to their trip, it is not part of the overall admissibility determination."

The Canada-U. S. border has been closed in light of the pandemic to all non-essential travel.

Earlier this week, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it considered driving to the States in a private vehicle for a COVID-19 vaccination on referral from a licensed health-care provider to be an essential medical service.

As a result, the agency said such travellers would fall under a quarantine exemption on return if they could show proof of having had the shot and the trip was solely for that purpose.

Health Canada did say the decision on whether entry into the U.S. is allowed would fall to American border authorities.

Shaun Horton said he tried to travel to New York on Wednesday from Niagara Falls, Ont., for a vaccination appointment just inside the U.S. but was turned back. He said the border agent did not want to see his doctor's letter confirming that the vaccine was medically necessary.

Horton, an airline pilot in Canada, said he wanted the vaccination because he's not allowed to wear a mask while the aircraft is in operation. He said he and his co-workers are tested prior to work.

"The officer advised that entry solely for the COVID-19 vaccine is not an acceptable purpose as Canada has access to a vaccine, regardless of the supply issues," Horton told The Canadian Press.

However, David Musyj, head of Windsor Regional Hospital in Windsor, Ont., said there have been many examples of crossings for a vaccine allowed to happen.

"That is why this is so political and needs some clarity and leadership," Musyj said. "We will keep trying to get vaccines into Canada."

The surplus in New York State prompted U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins on Wednesday to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to welcome Canadians seeking vaccines. He noted several border states, including North Dakota, Alaska, Washington and Montana, have allowed Canadian citizens to get a vaccine.

"Our Canadian neighbors need more help," said Higgins, co-chairman of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus and the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group.

Theresa Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Higgins, said border procedures needed clarification.

"Crossing the border for medical appointments is essential," Kennedy said. "The congressman will be advocating that crossing for a life-saving vaccine should fall within that category."

On Tuesday, hundreds of Albertans lined up at the Carway crossing for a quick drive into the U.S. for a COVID shot at a clinic put on by the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. Those going to the clinic were exempt from having to quarantine for 14 days on return.

"I was amazed and grateful because it's too slow getting it any other way," said Linda Neilson, of Cardston, Alta. "We're just glad they were able to help us."

Musyj, of the Windsor hospital, said he was still pushing for federal approval to allow an organized effort to retrieve surplus vaccines from Detroit and bring them back for use here. Ottawa has said millions of COVID-19 inoculation doses are arriving but supplies remain limited in many areas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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